As the box office numbers roll in this summer, the media is asking the usual rude questions: Who is really responsible for the hits and misses? How big will be the profits and losses?
These are valid questions, except for the fact that they only lead to another question: Can we believe the answers provided by the studios?
In fact, studios often distort the numbers, not only to the media but to their own profit participants. Every revenue figure is subject to complex allocations, overhead fees and other accounting machinations. Tom Cruise’s “Edge of Tomorrow” may or may not have cost the $178 million quoted to the press, but I’m not sure even Tom knows the real numbers on cost or revenues — or is thrilled with them in any event.
I have been a profit participant on six movies over the years, and hence see the studio breakdowns. I prefer to read my science fiction in other formats.
The issue of credit grabbing is even more intriguing and solipsistic. Clearly Seth MacFarlane set himself up to take the heat on “A Million Ways to Die in the West” as did Ben Stiller did on “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” That’s what happens when stars decide to become auteurs.
By contrast, Angelina Jolie’s performance, and celebrity, clearly powered “Maleficent.” And John Green, who wrote the novel on which the movie “The Fault in Our Stars” was based, emerged as the unlikely star. (The pricey “Maleficent” and low-budget “Fault” will likely emerge among the top profit generators of summer).
When a studio chief takes the blame and gets fired, I always wince when the media sets forth an instant assessment. Jeff Robinov looked good at Warner Bros. thanks to “Gravity” and “Man of Steel.” But now we realize he also left behind Adam Sandler’s box office flop “Blended” and “Jupiter Ascending,” the costly, troubled tentpole from the Wachowski siblings that was pushed back seven months from its original release date because it wasn’t ready for its closeup. Even Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” proved problematic in getting to the screen.
Tom Rothman was put into turnaround by Rupert Murdoch, but his performance looks a lot better now that we’ve seen his refashioned “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “Fault,” among Fox’s other summer successes.
The truth is that almost every hit picture was turned down by one studio chief after another before eliciting a greenlight. No one wanted to get near “Gravity” (Universal had shelved the project). “Most historic hits were executive inadvertencies,” the late Hollywood veteran producer and studio executive David Brown once told me.
One or two franchises can make a studio chief look like a genius. Alan Horn rode his “Harry Potter” and “Batman” series to a decade of plush profits. Not surprisingly, the studio’s present leadership has embarked on an archeological dig to recover lost superheroes.
On that front, Marvel’s slate under Kevin Feige, while producing formidable box office hits, has evidenced quirky relationships with its filmmakers. Edgar Wright recently got exterminated from “Ant-Man,” Kenneth Branagh was in constant combat with Paramount during “Thor,” and no director seems to return for a Marvel sequel. Who deserves the credit?
Studio vets will tell you that the ultimate success of a film stems from strong performances, smart directing and savvy marketing, with timely decisionmaking thrown in.
Even considering the mythic hits, the “what if” game is chilling to play. What if Marlon Brando had declined “The Godfather?” Or Jack Nicholson had said no to “Terms of Endearment?”
For studio heads and profit participants, it helps to have folks like Brando and Nicholson on your side. Also fate.